HOUSTON (AP) — Texas rice farmers will go a second consecutive year without irrigation water due to a persistent drought that has depleted reservoirs, a water supplier announced Saturday, a move that will seriously cut production.
The move by the Lower Colorado River Authority did not come as a surprise to farmers in three Southeast Texas counties, as the authority had announced in January that, barring significant rainfall, the lake levels would be too low to supply water.
"This drought has been tremendously difficult for the entire region, and we know that going without water for the second year in a row will be painful for the farmers and the economies they help support in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties," LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said in a statement.
"This was a difficult decision, but LCRA has to protect the water supply of its municipal and industrial customers during this prolonged drought," she added.
Rice is grown in paddies that are flooded. While the clay-like soil in the three impacted counties is ideal for growing rice — and little else — many farmers do not have an independent water supply to grow the crop.
Ronald Gertson is a rice farmer and chairman of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, a group that represents the interests of rice farmers in the three counties. He estimated the lack of water will result in a loss of about 55,000 acres of rice production this year.
Texas is the fifth-largest rice producer in the United States, and the economies of these three counties are heavily reliant on the industry that contributes $1 billion annually to the state's economy.
The lost production will likely cause some businesses to shutdown, causing hardship in an already struggling part of the state, Gertson said.
"We fear real economic and social suffering in our communities that have relied on rice farming for generations," he said in a statement. "The water cutoff will have a ripple effect."
Many farmers will be able to collect crop insurance for their losses for a second year, though most believe they would not be able to do so next year if the drought persisted and the LCRA once again cut off the water supply. A small number of farmers who have senior water rights along a river will be able to get some water.
As Texas braces for more dry spells alongside rapid population growth, the LCRA is looking at ways to expand supplies. It is hoping to build a new reservoir in Southeast Texas and launch a broad groundwater project in Central Texas.
"We know the region is growing. The time to prepare for that growth is now," Motal said.